How behavioural nudges can help us adopt sustainable waste management practices

Effective and continuous implementation of Behaviour Change Communication strategies is key to sustained change. This means nudging, or gently steering people, towards desirable behaviour whilst preserving their liberty of choice.
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Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments highlighted that many choices that we make as humans are influenced and limited by our mental resources: cognitive ability, attention span, and motivation. 

Behavioural economics relies on this essential insight from human psychology that humans do not always behave in their self-interest or as ‘rational agents’. This process rests on three key principles: 

  • While people’s behaviour is influenced significantly by social norms, understanding the drivers of the social norms can enable change.
  • People have tremendous inertia while making a choice; they prefer sticking to the default option.
  • As people find it difficult to sustain good habits, repeated reinforcements and reminders of successful past actions can help sustain changed behaviour.

Effective and continuous implementation of Behaviour Change Communication (BCC) strategies is key to sustained change. It is essential to ‘nudge’ or gently steer people towards desirable behaviour whilst preserving their liberty of choice. 

People are more likely to alter their behaviour if the others doing so belong to their community.

Swachh Bharat Mission 2.0 focuses on sustained behavioural change while embarking on newer sustainable solid waste management agendas. 

Solid waste management is a pressing civic and environmental challenge in India. The indiscriminate dumping of solid waste in landfills has serious consequences not only for residential dwellings but for society as a whole because of its contribution to global warming. Biodegradable waste in landfills releases methane, which has ~27x higher potential for global warming over 100 years as compared to carbon dioxide.2

Encouraging ‘good behaviour’ or acknowledging individuals who practice source segregation of waste or responsibly dispose of their waste leads to an emphasis on social norms. 

Positive reinforcement is the preferred method. This means people are more likely to follow a desired course of action if it is reiterated to them multiple times. Those who have done exemplary work are publicly felicitated and engaged appropriately to spread the message in other communities. 

For example, the Swachh Bharat Mission IEC Guidelines state that positive reinforcements through celebrating Swachhta Champions within the community increase the likelihood of retention of the message. Results of an experiment in the Netherlands showed that a sign around bins with messaging ‘Help to keep it clean here: most people in this neighbourhood do not litter around the containers’  helped reduce the littering frequency from 50 percent to 30 percent. 

Beneficial social norms propagating a more environmentally conscious view, drawing attention to role models/influencers people can identify with, or sharing success stories of how people have made a visible contribution in the past can go a long way in motivating desirable behaviour or behavioural change. 

People are more likely to alter their behaviour if the others doing so belong to their community. A community-level concern also highlights non-conformers, and fear of community scorn or a desire to fit in or both can lead people to participate actively. Results indicate that social information and appeals to norm-based behaviour reduced water use by up to 6.8 percent in households as information was provided to them on how they compared to their neighbours. 

There is tremendous potential for designing sustainable waste management programmes/campaigns in a way that leverage behavioural principles and overcome the inherent bias in individuals. The key principles that should be kept in mind are highlighting the social norm or ‘good behaviour’ techniques that involve personalities or a trusted authority figure that individuals can relate to. Disclose outcomes or the benefits of good behaviour and remind individuals of their past behaviour. 

For example, the study Social Norms and Energy Conservation by Professor Hunt Allcott published in the Journal of Public Economics revealed that household energy consumption on average reduced two percent by providing households with information on their past energy consumption and those of their neighbours. 

It is vital to use the power of clear messaging – easy to remember, intuitive, and that resonates with the target audience. Shopping malls, supermarkets, and retail stores are effective for such communications, especially at billing queues as customers wait their turn to pay for purchases. Wall paintings and writings are powerful tools for reinforcing positive messages. 

According to the NITI Aayog Policy Guidelines for Promoting Behaviour Change for Strengthening Waste Segregation at Source3 released in November 2021, products and packaging could also be designed innovatively to make disposal simple and intuitive, thus making source segregation automatic. 

Techniques that induce people to come together, appraise their community’s waste management situation, and plan the next course of action make people feel more involved and responsible. 

Inter-personal communication such as door-to-door campaigns, community events, awareness drives, and employing all forms of communication (pictorial as well as multilingual) are crucial. 

Keeping this in mind, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and Karo Sambhav have launched a campaign called #Recyclegiri on making responsible waste management a part of daily lives. The campaign is part of the project titled ‘Developing Collection Infrastructure & Recycling Platform for Plastic Waste and E-waste in non-urban India’ that is funded through the develoPPP programme that GIZ implements on behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Its objective is to bring about behavioural change in individuals through continuous Information, Education, and Communication. 

Currently, Recyclegiri has reached over 10 lakh individuals in Varanasi and Goa, to make it a nationwide collaborative effort. To know more about the campaign and its on-ground activities, take a look at #Recyclegiri on Twitter!

Edited by Teja Lele Desai

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